For 25 years, I have carried my papers in a maroon schoolbag. Just the other day, my wife told me the bag is green. Green? Why does she see it as green, when for all these years, I’ve seen it as maroon? Is it really just a black-and-white case of colorblindness?
For even longer, I have been an avid collector of vintage baseball cards, and I’ve always found this situation intriguing: Five people are given the criteria for grading old cards. Each looks at the same card at the same time, and each assigns a different grade. Why do some people see a baseball card as “near mint,” while others see it as only “excellent,” and still others see it as no better than “fair”?
There is a philosophical explanation for this: It’s known as “phenomenology.” Phenomenology posits that, while we exist in an objective time and space, we subjectively define every object we interact with or event we experience as it relates to our unique life experiences. The personal meaning that a baseball card has to the grader at the time she grades it, combined with the context within which she grades it, is what influences the grade she gives. Independent of any context, the card could be mint, excellent, or fair. And if the condition of the card can be every grade possible, then is it really any of them?
So where does phenomenology leave us when we’re grading children’s academic performance instead of baseball cards? Do teachers leave their subjectivity at the door when they look at a student essay, a test, homework? Not likely.
Consider this: Phenomenology tells us that no two children enter our classrooms at exactly the same place; the playing field for them is not level, in other words. Consequently, our students can’t possibly experience a lesson in the same way, or learn the material at the same rate. Because typical school design severely limits our ability to truly differentiate, and grading continues to be done in one-size-fits-all time periods (the length of a unit, a marking period, a school year), grading is discriminatory and needs to change.
We educators know from experience that if five teachers separately evaluate the same piece of student work, each teacher is likely to arrive at a different grade, even if all five use the same criteria. What’s more, if we asked these same five teachers to individually grade the student’s work over time and to then give him an overall grade, we undoubtedly would see that each teacher has a different approach for determining final grades.
Think about how five different teachers could take five different approaches to grading.
Our subjective realities influence the grades we give on a daily basis, which results in a fairness issue for students.
Let’s say the first teacher uses averaging to compute the student’s overall grade. The problem with averaging, however, is that it involves taking the student’s most current grade and diluting it with previous grades the student received when his ability to learn the material was the product of fewer (and lesser) experiences.
The second teacher uses weighting, which, unfortunately, is a subjective practice that discriminates against certain learning styles. For example, if tests are worth 60 percent of the overall grade, then homework accounts for 30 percent and class participation 10 percent, the student whose learning style is best adapted to test-taking will have the advantage.
The third teacher practices composite grading, which typically incorporates averaging and weighting. But when she combines the grades the student received in different skill sets—test scores (knowledge acquisition), homework completion (responsibility, time management), class participation (intersocial skills), and effort (motivation)—into one grade, she ends up leaving stakeholders guessing which skills the student actually possesses, and to what degree.
Teacher Four, meanwhile, gives zeros when she feels they are merited. But while the numerical gaps between scores of 100, 90, 80, 70, and 60 are in 10-point increments, the gap between a grade of 59 and a grade of zero is 59 points. If zeros are averaged into the student’s overall grade, they skew the result lower, and his grade can’t possibly be a reliable measure of his learning. Teacher Five practices some combination of these approaches.
To no one’s surprise, the discrepancy in final grades given by the five teachers is even greater than it was with the grades they gave each of the student’s individual pieces.
Our subjective realities influence the grades we give on a daily basis, which results in a fairness issue for students. When we use different approaches to compute final grades, and flawed approaches at that, we compound that unfairness.
Subjective grading may be par-for-the-course with baseball cards, but students are not baseball cards; they are human beings. Those subjective grades we give our students end up defining them and regulating their opportunities in life.
There are numerous theoretical and technical reasons for ending the practice of grading. There is also a very compelling ethical reason. We know that a child’s background is a complex stew of interacting physical, psychological, social, and cultural factors for which no two children are alike. And those factors, over most of which the child has no control, regulate not only what the child gets to experience, but to what degree he or she can experience it. And experience is what stimulates connections within our brains.
A truly evolutionary step would be to give standards-based formative assessment an honest try. Instead of grading our students, we will simply report on a regular basis which standards our students are individually demonstrating sustained progress in and which ones they are not. By providing students with multiple opportunities over time to demonstrate their continual growth in the standards and regularly measuring that growth using progress rubrics for each of those standards, we can then report at any time exactly what each student knows and is able to do. Grades do not and cannot do that. Any time we grade something, we assign a fixed value to it. But learning is fluid. Any grade we give as a reflection of student proficiency is instantly obsolete because our students’ schemas are never static. The way in which we monitor, measure, and report student learning needs to be formative, not summative. And if this approach also fails, we will at least have stimulated a more healthy evolutionary process toward more reliable and less discriminatory reporting of student learning.
Some argue that it’s not that proponents of grading are in denial. It’s that they are bound by their subjective realities around grading and truly unable to receive or perceive reasons for ending the practice. That would be convenient, but phenomenology also explains that it is impossible for us to disconnect ourselves from objective time and space. Proponents of grading cannot ignore the fact that grading has been practiced for more than a century, and throughout that time, a call for transformation has not only been constant but steadily intensifying.
It is time to acknowledge and accept that there is a reason for that, and that it is time to try something different. Our subjective realities about grading should not be our excuse for continuing to grade. On the contrary, subjectivity should be one more reason to abandon grading.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week